War Takes Toll on Military Kids

The War on Terror (search) is taking a toll on the children of American soldiers as public school and Pentagon officials report an increase in behavior problems, failing grades and dropout rates.

"These kids are not doing well — they are not doing well academically, they are not doing well socially, they are not doing well emotionally. It’s wearing thin," said Barbara Critchfield, a longtime guidance counselor at Shoemaker High School in Killeen, Texas, which sits right outside of Fort Hood (search), the largest Army base in the country.

At least 80 percent of the 2,000-member student body at Shoemaker lives in a military household. A majority of them have parents who have been or are currently deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Critchfield told Foxnews.com of numerous teens who have stopped coming to school altogether. Of the 396 expected graduates this June, 75 to 80 have already either dropped out or have skipped too much school to graduate on time, she said.

"They’re dropping like flies," she said.

She reported that one teenage girl was living alone for a year before her father returned home from Iraq. One student is adjusting to a returned parent’s painful post-traumatic stress. Another boy's father never came home.

"I don’t think we will ever be the same," Critchfield said, noting that there have been three deaths and at least two serious injuries to parents of students on campus. "For the most part, we just try to be there for the kids, we roll with the punches, and every day brings a whole new problem."

Such are the circumstances for schools connected to the many installations across the country that have been rotating troops since Sept. 11, 2001. Currently, about 135,000 American troops are serving in Iraq, several thousand are deployed in Afghanistan, and still thousands more are in the Gulf region or other hotspots across the globe.

Department of Defense officials dedicated to keeping watch over military families say there are around 1.2 million school-age children of parents in the military's active duty force. Dr. Jean Silvernail, program analyst for the Pentagon's Military Children in Transition and Deployment (search), said the Pentagon has no firm data for the number of children, including those whose parents are serving in the National Guard and Reserves, directly affected by current deployments. Recent reports have put the number served by public schools at close to 650,000.

School officials say because of their location outside of major military installments, they have always been prepared for transitory issues, since children frequently come to and go from the school district when their parents are transferred. But the war has tested the skills of many teachers, some of whom are military spouses themselves.

"I have a husband who is about to be sent off again," said Amanda Tooke, assistant principal at Kenyon Hills Middle School in El Paso, Texas, which serves a large number of families connected to Fort Bliss (search). She has three children in the local schools, including one in the middle school.

"It’s up and down, an emotional roller coaster," she said.

Tooke said teachers are watching for warning signs and giving personal attention where needed. For the most part, she said, they just try to keep up a patriotic, positive atmosphere.

"The awareness is important," she said, noting that they have a student whose older brother was recently injured in a roadside bomb attack. "Everyone is really supportive."

Silvernail said the Department of Defense has enlisted the help of organizations like Generations United (search), a group of retired military personnel and veterans who go to school districts to offer tutoring services. The Military Impacted Schools Association (search) is also looking out to make sure schools get the resources they need.

The Defense Department has put up a Web site, MilitaryStudent.org, which offers links to information, resources and personal contacts for teachers, students and parents. Silvernail said her department is also hiring regional counseling coordinators for the most impacted districts.

"One of the things we know is that children under the stress of deployment are affected academically, socially, and emotionally," she said. "We are truly trying hard to do the best we can for these kids."

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes (search), R-N.C., successfully pushed through a House resolution honoring the teachers and administrators in schools that are disproportionately affected by war. His district includes Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, and he said he will continue to fight for federal aid for these schools.

"It’s a pretty disruptive life," he told Foxnews.com. "This is something we tend to take for granted — that our school personnel is stepping up to make things as seamless, and if at all possible, as uninterrupted as they possibly can."

Critchfield said spirits have been brightened by the prospect of graduation day on May 30, for which there will be a teleconference between mothers and fathers in Baghdad and their graduates at Ft. Hood. Not only will they be able to see the commencement ceremony, but each parent will have a few minutes afterward for a video chat with their children. In addition, the whole event will be broadcast live on the Web.

The whole undertaking represents a huge gift for both the parents and the students, who have, in many cases, been a bundle of nerves throughout the entire school year, she said.

"We pretty much take it one day at a time. It's tense, and intense."